April 30, 2009

Winning in Tecumseh's Vision

Continuing the discussion of Tecumseh's Vision, the second episode of PBS's We Shall Remain series:

I was under the impression that Tecumseh suffered one major defeat--when his brother Tenskwatawa launched an ill-advised attack on William Henry Harrison's forces in Tecumseh's absence.

But I learned there were four turning points, not just one, from Tecumseh's Vision. Had the circumstances been different at any of these points, Tecumseh could've won--or at least kept fighting--against the Americans.

This reinforces what I said in Outcome of After the Mayflower--that Indians had many chances to stave off the Euro-American onslaught. They couldn't have defeated the foreigners outright, but they could've stymied them enough to make a coexistence compromise possible.

In all these cases, remember the context. The Americans had superior numbers, better weapons, and immunity to disease. Yet the Indians held their own under these adverse conditions. Any delay in an American victory gave the Indians more chances to rebuild their forces and fight another day.

The four turning points I noted in Tecumseh's Vision:

  • The Shawnee and their allies kept US forces on run in the Northwest Territory for six years--1788 to 1794. They were doing well until a disastrous loss at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. A well-planned retreat turned into a rout when the Indians' British allies locked them out of Ft. Miami.

  • The loss resulted in the Treaty of Greenville, which forced the Indians to give up the southern two-thirds of the Ohio Valley. As Wikipedia notes:One veteran of Fallen Timbers who did not sign the Greenville treaty was a young Shawnee war leader named Tecumseh, who would renew Indian resistance in the years ahead.The US troops were led by General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, whom I believe was a ruthlessly effective leader. At one point a tree fell on his tent and knocked him unconscious, but he recovered and carried on.

    If the British hadn't betrayed their Indian allies, or if Wayne had died from the falling tree or a stray bullet, the outcome might've been different. There would've been no Treaty of Greenville, and the Indians would've fought from a position of strength rather than weakness.

  • The aforementioned defeat--aka the Battle of Tippecanoe near Prophetstown in August 1811. Tecumseh told his brother Tenskwatawa not to do anything while he was gone rallying tribes to the cause. But the Western tribes in the confederacy didn't want to wait for Tecumseh's return. They urge a preemptive strike. Tenskwatawa bowed to the pressure and ordered a pre-dawn attack.

  • A noise apparently alerted a sentry at 4 am. He roused the troops and they forced the Indians to retreat and scatter. Then the troops marched on Prophetstown and burned it to the ground. So the Americans "won" even though they may have suffered more casualties, according to one historian.

    We can imagine several scenarios in which the Indians could've avoided or turned this battle. If Tenskwatawa had held firm to his brother's orders. If Tecumseh had had a trusted military aide whom he could've left in charge. If the sentry hadn't heard the Indians approach. If a stray arrow or bullet had killed William Henry Harrison.

    Though the loss smashed Tecumseh's confederacy, he was able to regroup the tribes in a year's time. At the beginning of the War of 1812, his position was as strong as before.

  • Tecumseh sold the British on the goal of reacquiring the Ohio Valley and they became allies again. Working with the aggressive General Brock, Tecumseh achieved "military brilliance" in the summer of 1812, forcing the Americans back.

  • According to Tecumseh's Vision, Tecumseh's finest hour was capturing Fort Detroit in 1812, which he and Brock masterminded together. A key trick was parading the same small group of fighters through a forest clearing to make the allied forces seem much larger. The Americans surrendered almost before the fighting began.

    As one historian put it:An independent Indian territory supported by the British was on the brink of becoming a reality.But Brock was killed in another battle in New York. Procter, the new British commander, was much less aggressive. He was interested only in defending Canada, not in defeating the Americans. Tecumseh had to goad him into action.

    If Brock had lived, the British/Indian forces might've continued their winning ways.

  • The British lost the Battle of Lake Erie and wanted to abandon Detroit. Tecumseh demanded that they stand and fight. But Procter retreated, offering little resistance along the way. As Wikipedia put it:The British retreat was badly managed, and the soldiers had been reduced to half rations. The British soldiers were becoming increasingly demoralized, and Tecumseh's warriors grew even more impatient with Procter for his unwillingness to stop and fight, giving Procter reason to fear a mutiny by the warriors.
  • The final betrayal occurred October 5, 1813, when the British abandoned their allies. Tecumseh fought on and was killed. His body was mutilated beyond recognition by Harrison's Kentuckians.

    This Battle of the Thames was "the final battle for control of the Great Lakes." But things might've been different if Procter hadn't bungled that final retreat, if he hadn't given up altogether, if he had stood and fought. Or if Tecumseh had survived the battle, or chosen a strategic retreat. (Tecumseh's Vision implies he wanted to go down fighting.)

    Even if the British and Indians lost the war, Tecumseh was only 45. He could've gone on organizing tribes for another 20 or 30 years. Imagine his convincing the Cherokees to resist the Trail of Tears relocation and instead fight back under his leadership.

    The short version of this long-winded posting is that no, Native defeat wasn't inevitable. There were a dozen scenarios in which Tecumseh could've won or staved off defeat for years if not decades. With a little luck, he could've been the central figure of 19th-century US history, not Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln.

    For more on the subject, see Confederacy in Tecumseh's Vision and Review of Tecumseh's Vision.

    Below:  A speculative depiction of Tecumseh's death at the hands of Richard M. Johnson.


    Stephen said...

    "The final betrayal occurred October 5, 1813, when the British abandoned their allies. Tecumseh fought on and was killed. His body was mutilated beyond recognition by Harrison's Kentuckians."

    To hell with him then, he got what he deserved for crawling into bed with a genocidial and oppressive government. It's not as if the brits would have been any better; Tecumseh's people might have been installed as the British government's chosen tribe while other Indians suffered.

    "A speculative depiction of Tecumseh's death at the hands of Richard M. Johnson."

    Boohoo another pawn of the british establishment drops dead, Johnson did the right thing.

    Rob said...

    To hell with Tecumseh for allying himself with the British against the US? I don't agree with that.